By no means are children alone in their disturbingly high levels of obesity, but statistics collected by government and health agencies over the past two decades have shown most-notable increases among children. While many groups and consumers may be quick to pounce on the food industry as the sole culprit behind these rising numbers, Mintel International's report “Children and Obesity--U.S.” explains obesity as an outgrowth of a complex interaction of a variety of factors.

The statistics do appear frightening: as of 2002, 16% of children aged 6 to 11 were considered overweight, the same percentage as those 12 to 19. As recently as 1980, the levels were less than half that: 7% for 6- to 11-year-olds, and 5% for 12- to 19-year-olds. In fact, while the number of overweight children in the U.S. remained relatively unchanged during the 1960s through 1980, the number has increased sharply in recent national estimates. Furthermore, in 2002, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned that another 15% of children were at risk of becoming overweight.

While the rising number of calories in children's diets is an easy target, Mintel contends that is only part of the equation. Calories have been on the rise since the 1970s, but the quality of them has declined, which Mintel illustrates by noting the “soaring per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, gallons of soft drinks consumed, or number of meals eaten away from home.” Complicating matters has been an increasingly distorted view of portion sizes, a factor in adult obesity levels as well.

The March/April 2003 Nutrition Today featured a literature review by nutrition expert Barbara Rolls, PhD, with Pennsylvania State University, who observed three issues about portion size:

1. The size of the package influences intake,

2. Bigger portions are conducive to larger intake and

3. Consumers do not necessarily regulate their intake from one sitting to the next, even if they overate at an earlier sitting

Setting Limits

Container size also appears to play a role in consumption trends. A 2001 report in Food Quality and Preference reported that movie-goers with a 1lb bag of M&Ms ate 112 of the candies, while movie-goers with a 2lb bag of M&Ms consumed an average of 156. Variety also plays a role in overeating, the study suggested: if offered more colors the subjects ate more. Therefore, access to unlimited food quantities, like that found at salad bars or “all you can eat” buffets, encourages over-consumption, the report surmised.

A similar experiment had a soup bowl that continuously refilled, unbeknownst to the persons eating. Women ate 30% more soup, and men consumed 40% more than from “normal” bowls.

Research by Rolls published in the May 2003 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrated the effect of repeat exposure to larger portions among children. When the appropriate portion size for pre-school children was doubled, the children ingested 25% more food, increasing their intake by 15%. When allowed to serve themselves, the children ingested 25% less than those served a large portion. According to Rolls, repeated exposure to larger portions could have a long-term energy effect on children who may have “satiety deficits.” Furthermore, she recommended allowing children to self-select versus being served a portion, contending this may allow the youngster to regulate intake more successfully.

Younger children have better diets, Mintel found, but they actually appear to deteriorate as the children grow older and presumably become more independent. While USDA statistics found an increase in the number of children eating poor diets in the first half of the 1990s, the second half of the decade did see some improvement. The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics notes that less than 25% of children consume the recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings per day.

Analyzing economic data from the USDA Economic Research Service, Mintel finds an “overabundance of calories in the U.S. food supply, coupled with uneven weighting toward carbohydrate and fat macronutrients.” Consumer price indices appear more conducive to cheaper, low-nutrient-density products rather than pricier, higher-nutrient-density foods, perhaps explaining the lack of access to nutritious and affordable foods among the working poor.

Mintel's consumer research, on the other hand, finds consumers place little blame on income levels. Obesity well may affect lower-income groups disproportionately, but the respondents are much more willing to identify access to junk food and lack of exercise as the culprit behind obesity. Mintel firmly states, “Education of consumers--and placing viable strategies within their reach--is at the heart of making advances in combating childhood obesity.” With just over 60% of children participating in vigorous physical activity and less than a quarter eating the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, education--both physical and nutritional, in the school or at home--would appear wise.

While nutritional education ideally would be found in the home, schools are the surest places to teach appropriate eating habits, the report argues, especially considering the impact school foods have on young people's overall eating habits. As such, “schools should become the key venue for reducing the negative effects of obesity on individuals and society,” with a number of programs established to teach and deliver better diets. These already in development include those associated with the National Farm to School program, grants from the USDA's Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems, and private education efforts from retailers such as Whole Foods Markets and Wegman's.

Mintel advises motivating public companies and the government alike to follow through on actions in the past several years to fight obesity. “One reason is the threat of discrimination and injustice, in addition to soaring healthcare claims,” and even those fail to address the emotional scars that may prove more difficult to address than the physical “cure.”

Back to School

The National Farm to School program aims to provide healthy meals in school cafeterias, connecting local farms with local schools to supply fresh, local and healthful foods. The program has proven successful enough to warrant the USDA to offer training and assistance to farm to school programs nationwide through 2006.

Retailers also are joining the cause to get healthy lunches into schools. Whole Foods Markets has a “School Lunch Box” section with an assembly line and guidance to make the lunch more interesting. Similarly, Wegman's offers advice on packing healthful lunches for children.

Until relatively recently, beverage options in many schools (particularly in the maligned vending areas) had been limited to soft drinks, and the possible relationship between those beverages and energy intake among children has been well-documented. It would appear the industry is working to improve the selection, however. The June 2005 Amber Waves, published by the USDA, found “new children's beverages accounted for 5% of all beverages introduced during 2000-2004. Some 43% of children's beverages introduced during the period were fruit and fruit-flavored drinks. Soft drinks made up just 3% of new beverages targeted at children, compared with 9% in the previous five years.” Dairy and non-dairy beverages, the USDA found, comprised a little over 21% of new beverage introductions. Parents, Mintel notes, have become more vigilant in distinguishing between real fruit juice and juice drinks, and promote more milk or water consumption when possible. In fact, the USDA noted the industry's efforts to develop new more-healthful foods and beverages for children, finding 15% of new foods and beverages targeted at children and introduced between 2000 and 2004 were whole-grain, low-fat and low-sugar, an increase from 9% in 1995-1999.

On the Outs

Perhaps less healthy are the children's options available in restaurants. Incorporating statistics from Mintel's Menu Insights, the report finds nine of the most frequently featured items on children's menus are finger foods, at least four of which contain cheese. A “cursory overview of the items, which is representative of all dining styles from QSR through fine dining, does not suggest a health focus.” The top 50 items did not include healthful alternatives such as fruit, vegetables or salad. A look at the family dining segment for the top 10 and 20 menu item dishes for children yielded a similar menu profile. Salads were found on 18 children's menus, out of 1,656 total available items. Fruit appeared on 11.

Further investigation of children's menus using Menu Insights showed the most prevalent method of preparation on children's menus is fried. More than 47% of the items found on children's menus were prepared that way.

Just in Time

Mintel's analysis also incorporates time-savings into its take on children's obesity. Shopping habits, eating patterns and exercise regimens all are subject to a decreased amount of consumer free time. The analysis goes a step further, in fact, tying in the distance working parents must commute. Those commutes are “shaped by housing affordability, a desire for better school systems, safe neighborhoods and better-paying jobs.” Therefore, due to family economic decisions with a significant impact on time, children are in daycare much longer than 20 years ago--and in supervised parental environments less. With family-interaction time squeezed into errands and extra-curricular activities, less time is left for mealtimes or simple “at home” time, as Mintel puts it.

Such family time may have more association with obesity than previously thought, if recent research is to be believed. “Rare genetic abnormalities can cause obesity,” Mintel reports, “(but) researchers more commonly agree that obesity may be more reflective of how genes react to, or interrelate with, environmental and behavioral factors.” Regardless, research does show that the critical years in determining a child's weighty future appear to be before the age of six.

Somewhat related to the time issue is physical exercise, the lack of which long has been touted as a factor in the obesity crisis. Mintel's report, however, finds activity (defined by sport or enrollment in scheduled physical activity) has not declined generally among children and, in fact, has increased in some age groups. While children are spending time in pursuits not considered “planned physical activity,” that is not to say they are spending those hours idle. Children spend more time in cars, running errands and multitasking among various media options (computers, mp3 players). The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), in evaluating the presence of media in children's lives, found 63% of children live in households where the television is on during meals, with 51% exposed to an environment where a television is left on “most” or “all” of the time. This leads to a pair of questions: does media exposure replace activity, thus potentially leading to overweight or obesity, and does media exposure result in undesirable or unhealthy eating habits?

While physical activity adequate to burn calories may be in a net decline, “studies are not conclusive and are not easily shown to be a leading cause of obesity,” contends Mintel. Consumers surveyed in the report, however, have no problem categorizing lack of physical exercise as a leading cause of obesity. The KFF study, however, found “no statistically significant difference in the amount of time that light, moderate or heavy television viewers reported spending in physical activity.” The study showed children are physically active approximately 1.25 hours daily, with another hour spent “pursuing hobbies or other activities.” KFF's 2004 report, “The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity,” observed that, while children may be using more media in their lives, they are not necessarily any less active.

Parental Guidance Suggested

In Mintel's consumer surveys, some 93% agree that children have too much access to junk food, with 74% contending that a lack of exercise is the key cause of childhood obesity. Likewise, they are confident the blame rests with parents (77%) rather than the children. A relatively few (26%) believe the whole obesity issue is overblown.

Curiously, respondents seem reluctant to identify their children as overweight. In fact, when asked to say that someone in their household is overweight, respondents are quick to identify themselves as that person, and it is this sort of denial, Mintel argues, that makes the fight against childhood obesity difficult.

Talking to the Children

Marketing to children has come under fire in recent years, both in traditional media outlets such as television and the Internet, as well as food and sport product licensing and vending machines in schools. Most research agrees that marketing to children is highly successful, with one notable report finding that most children by two years of age are aware of at least some brands. At the same time, of the estimated 40,000 television commercials young people see in a year, 32% are for candy, 31% for cereal and 9% for fast food outlets.

The American Psychological Association has cited research demonstrating that “children under the age of 8 are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased. This can lead to unhealthy eating habits as evidenced by today's youth obesity epidemic...(and) such advertising of unhealthy food products to young children contributes to poor nutritional habits that may last a lifetime...” Of course, some would argue any commercial-viewing statistics are relatively meaningless if children have little impact on purchasing decisions. However, young people certainly appear to have some say.

A different Mintel report, “American Lifestyles--U.S.,” published in December 2004, finds “children aged 2-4 will influence up to $51.8 billion in spending by 2008, with the teen/tween segment valued at an estimated $243 billion by 2007.” Roper ASW researchers found 84% of parents agreed that their children influence food purchasing decisions, more than any other category. The survey reported 78% of children aged 8-17 said they influenced food purchases in 2003, up from 70% in 2002. When asked what they had bought most recently, 35% said candy, 26% soda and soft drinks, 25% clothes and 21% food.

Not helping matters on the marketing front is the disconnect between established studies about marketing to children and actual marketing campaigns aimed at the group. A study by Brandweek found marketers believe it is appropriate to direct marketing campaigns to children as young as seven. However, the same group also says children cannot make intelligent consumer decisions until 11.7 years of age.

These facts, not to mention increased attention by activist groups, “will very likely lead to changes in how advertising and marketing to kids evolves,” predicts Mintel. Already, companies are implementing various tactics in the wake of child obesity concerns. Kraft Foods has ceased advertising certain “unhealthy” products to children under 12, and General Mills is touting the benefits of its cereals on the basis that products may be perceived as less than healthful. Some suggest these two approaches underscore a split growing in the food industry, namely in coming to a consensus on managing a brand and brand position, while simultaneously addressing public perception and concerns about the relationship between food, children and obesity.

This article contains information from the Mintel Report “Children and Obesity--U.S.--August 2005.” Please visit http:// for more information or call Mintel at 312-932-0400.